by Tony Wyman
“Either America will destroy ignorance or ignorance will destroy the United States.” – W.E.B DuBois
In the seminal novel about a dystopian totalitarian future 1984, author George Orwell penned the line “Ignorance is Strength” as one of the three slogans of the dictatorial political party of “Big Brother” that ruled over the territory known as Oceania.
“War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength.”
What he meant by the line was the ruling elite of the nation maintained their control over the people by keeping them ignorant of the truth about their lives, about the forces that controlled and directed them, about their history as a people.
Implicit in the slogan was the knowledge that those leaders, Big Brother and the operatives who made up the security state over which he ruled, understood the power a free and informed people had to oppose a dictatorial state and, therefore, to control them, rulers had to rewrite history, fabricate enemies and co-opt the people themselves to join the state in depriving them of the knowledge they needed to be free.
In that way, Orwell foresaw the America of today, where knowledge is abundant and access to it is nearly unlimited, but where millions of people choose, instead, to willingly mire themselves in ignorance.
Don’t believe Americans are ignorant? Here’s some numbers for you:
- According to the Annenberg Public Policy Center 2019 civics survey, only 39% of the people could name the three branches of government, the highest percentage who could do so in five years. As many as 22% couldn’t name a single branch of the government.
- A mere 37% could name any of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. (Speech, assembly, religion, petition and press.)
- Only 14% know Freedom of the Press is a right protected by the First Amendment.
- Nearly half, 45% of American adults believe undocumented immigrants have no rights under the Constitution
- Only 36% of adult Americans can pass a multiple choice citizenship test, according to the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.
- 75% couldn’t name the original 13 colonies.
- Fewer than 25% knew why the colonists fought the British in the Revolutionary War.
- 40% of American adults have never heard of Auschwitz and more than half thought Hitler came to power in a coup, rather than by being elected by the German people.
- The National Science Foundation discovered 25% of Americans believe the Sun orbits the Earth
- And 12% believed our 34th President, Dwight Eisenhower was a general during the Civil War.
But America’s culture of ignorance is more than a refusal to learn facts, it is a conscious decision to choose ignorance over enlightenment.
Why is it at a time when more Americans are better educated than ever before, when they have access to the world’s bank of knowledge from their iPhones and laptops, have we seemingly chosen to ignore the work of experts and chosen, instead, to believe easily disproved conspiracy theories and junk science spread on social media by people who are, essentially, con artists and snake-oil salesmen?
There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.
What is it that motivates people to passionately believe in things that simply aren’t true, that are easily shown to be false and that are rejected by experts who have dedicated their lives to becoming leaders in their fields?
Asimov was right that “the strain of anti-intellectualism” has been a part of the American zeitgeist since the birth of this nation, but never in our history has it been as virulent as it is today.
Bill Gates and COVID-19
Right now, as I type this, a close friend is spreading a conspiracy theory on Facebook that Bill Gates and Dr. Anthony Fauci are involved in a global conspiracy to bring down the Trump Administration and make billions off vaccines to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“I wonder why Fauci was so quick to want to shutdown the booming Trump economy all across the nation,” asks the post my college-educated, white collar professional friend posted on his page to the general approval of dozens of others, “why He (sic) wants to keep it down for months and months, why He (sic) is resisting the drugs that doctors say are proving effective treatment already, why He (sic) made funny faces behind Trumps (sic) back when the President (sic) mentioned ‘Deep State,’ and why the liberal media freaked out when they didn’t see Fauci on stage,” wrote the original author of the post now going viral (sorry) on Facebook.
The original posts goes on to list 15 so-called “facts” that imply that Gates, through his charity, the Gates Foundation, along with Dr. Fauci, is actually the person behind the spread of the virus.
Politifact, the fact-checking web site that is, of course, also often a target of conspiracy theorists, evaluated the claims made by the post’s author and determined the post was largely false and deliberately misleading.
“While the Facebook post gets a few things right,” reported Politifact, “it paints an inaccurate picture of Gates and Fauci’s connections to the development of a COVID-19 vaccine. There is no evidence that the two men orchestrated a pandemic to profit from a future vaccine.”
Of course, it never should have entered into the minds of anyone that Bill Gates, 64, the world’s second richest man with a fortune estimated at $98 billion, would need to concoct a global pandemic, enlisting the aid of one of the world’s foremost virus experts to do so, to add more money to his savings account.
Not only is the idea completely preposterous on its surface, it simply defies logic. Why would Gates risk life in prison, the lost of his fortune and reputation as the world’s leading philanthropist, to add a few billion dollars to a pile of wealth he can never hope to spend during his remaining years?
The reality is Gates has spent his years since stepping away from running Microsoft warning about the threats of a pandemic and trying to get the world’s political leaders to take the threat seriously. In fact, no one in the world has done more to alert the global community about the lack of preparation to address this very crisis than has Bill Gates.
But no one listened.
“The impact of a huge epidemic, like a flu epidemic, would be phenomenal because all the would . There’d be a lot of panic. Many of our systems would be overloaded,” he told reporters covering the 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “But being ready for epidemics of different sizes, there’s a lot more we should do.”
Recognizing the world wasn’t prepared to formulate vaccines quickly enough to save lives and stop pandemics before they exacted a devastating toll, Gates told those assembled in Davos, “The idea is to take a new way of building vaccines that could let us develop, in less than a year, a novel vaccine. It gives us a chance of being able to respond in time when the next epidemic hits.”
From those comments and other efforts that Gates and his foundation have made to save the world from the disaster we now face, one that has, as of this writing killed nearly 67,000 Americans and 245,000 people globally – those who peddle and promote lies on social media have concocted a ridiculous fable pinning the crisis on him and Dr. Fauci.
This tale is the moral and intellectual equivalent of blaming firefighters for responding to the blaze burning down your house after you ignored their advice to put smoke detectors in your home.
So, why do seemingly intelligent people buy this nonsense?
Denialism and the Rejection of Expertise
Observers of the modern age have noticed the disturbing rise of “denialism,” the rejection of expertise, in American society and have correlated it to an increase in the willingness of people to believe in things that are manifestly false.
The power of denialism over reason, over knowledge and wisdom, is great and hard to defeat because it preys on our innate intellectual laziness and our willingness to believe in hidden forces, like President Trump’s famous “Swamp,” that are out to do us no good. So what is “denialism?”
It is a normal condition of human existence to deny certain things, to live peacefully with others in a state of denial. For example, one can deny the dangers of smoking or of living a sedentary lifestyle to allow oneself the pleasures of lighting a cigarette while sitting on the couch. That is denial.
Denialism is arguing against the science, and the consensus built around that science, that tobacco use and an inactive lifestyle is bad for the human body.
Denialism is the use of rhetorical techniques to give an audience the false impression that the speaker is participating in a legitimate debate where none exists with the ultimate goal of rejecting and discrediting a contradictory rhetorical position backed by scientific or intellectual/philosophical consensus.
As sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris put it:
Denialism is more than just another manifestation of the humdrum intricacies of our deceptions and self-deceptions. It represents the transformation of the everyday practice of denial into a whole new way of seeing the world and – most important – a collective accomplishment. Denial is furtive and routine; denialism is combative and extraordinary. Denial hides from the truth, denialism builds a new and better truth.
Examples of denialism would include the belief held early in the days of the AIDS epidemic that HIV wasn’t the cause of the disease; that the Earth was created in 4004 B.C.; that climate change has nothing to do with human activity, if it even exists at all; that miracle cures purported to cure COVID-19, despite medical evidence to the contrary, can be found on the Facebook pages of people with no clinical qualifications whatsoever. Or, for that matter, that Bill Gates and Anthony Fauci are behind the COVID-19 virus pandemic.
People who peddle in denialism are found throughout American society today. Fox News employs a number of them. So does right-wing radio. People like Rush Limbaugh, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Alex Jones, Michael Savage and, of course, President Donald Trump, regularly employ the technique to galvanize their viewers and followers and motivate them to action, action that is, often, not in their best interest, if they knew the truth of the matter.
So, how can we spot denialism as a rhetorical device in political and civil discourse? There are five typical characteristics of this technique that define denialism. They are:
- Reliance on conspiracies – when the preponderance of scientific evidence, clinical studies, analysis by recognized experts, and the like, supports a consensus about a subject, denialists won’t attack the veracity or viability of the expert’s conclusions, because they don’t have the data or evidence to support a change to the accepted conclusion.
Instead, the denialist will attack the character and integrity of those supporting the truth. Using the Bill Gates example above, the denialist doesn’t point out that the billionaire philanthropist was correct when he warned the world that a pandemic would have the disastrous impact that COVID-19 is currently having.
Instead, the denialist will construct from whole cloth a conspiracy theory that Gates was motivated by greed and was, somehow, involved in making his warning come true.
- Fake experts – The denialist relies on the false testimony of people who claim to be experts in a field but who lack the credentials or intellectual credibility of true experts. The tobacco industry relied heavily on such people when opposing laws restricting the use of cigarettes and when health experts tied smoking to lung cancer.
Philip Morris executives hired scientists they called “white coats” in the 1980’s to push discredited pseudoscience arguing smoking was actually not harmful for smokers The petroleum industry created the Global Climate Science Communications Plan which recruited “…scientists who share the industry’s views of climate science [who can] help convince journalists, politicians and the public that the risk of global warming is too uncertain to justify controls on greenhouse gases.”
- Cherry picking and selectivity – This is the use of widely discredited papers that support the ideas promoted by the denialists, that attack the weakest research done in support of the scientific consensus or that highlight flaws in otherwise valid research in a manner designed to discredit the entire field.
The most famous example of this is the Lancet Papers that described intestinal abnormalities in a dozen autistic children and falsely linked those abnormalities to immunizations against Measles, Mumps and Rubella. The Lancet Papers are frequently cited by anti-immunization activists despite the fact that 10 of the 13 scientists who published the initial report have since withdrawn their support and endorsement of the findings.
Denialists faced with widespread condemnation for their false science and shoddy research see their steadfastness in the face of conventional science not as an indication of their poor quality of their work but, rather, as proof of their courage in the face of the scientific establishment.
- Unrealistic standards for what research can accomplish – An example of this is climate deniers demanding accurate temperature readings from periods before the invention of thermometers. Since that data is impossible to produce, denialists point to it as evidence that climate science is inexact and, by default, fraudulent. Philip Morris went as far as to attempt to change the epidemiological standards for studies that, had it been accepted by any credible medical group, would have effectively wiped out decades of science proving cigarettes cause cancer.
- Misrepresentation and logical fallacies – Denialists frequently misrepresent the real focus of research and create strawmen to make it easier to discredit those who promote scientific truth. For example, the tobacco industry pointed out that Adolf Hitler was anti-smoking, tying those who opposed tobacco use to the Nazis, even going so far as to coin the phrase “nico-Nazis.”
The industry also labeled the 1992 determination by the Environmental Protection Agency that the passive inhalation of cigarette smoke by non-smokers was a health risk an “attack on civil liberties” and a “threat to the very core of democratic values and democratic public policy”.
The goal of denialists, therefore, is to deprive the people of the truth, replacing it with fabricated falsehoods and half-truths with the aim of keeping the people ignorant of the facts. For denialists, ignorance is power because it licences them, makes their arguments seem credible, and weakens those who point out the fallacies of their positions.
When the people no longer have faith in the scientist, the doctor, the researcher or the judge, they are more susceptible to the snake oil salesman, the con artist, the magician and the denialists.
The Danger of Ignorance
What makes the denialist so dangerous is his ability to convince those who listen to him that only he has the people’s best interest at heart. After all, it was he who showed the people the truth, who exposed the conspiracy and defrocked the so-called experts, the elites in the swamp who had lied to the people for so long, who had stolen their wealth and limited their freedoms.
Since his words were so compelling, since the anger he stirred in the hearts of those who bought his half-truths and drank his snake oil was so powerful, he grew in his followers a sense of loyalty, of kinship, of tribal identity so powerful that it bordered on cult-like hero worship.
And once the denialist’s followers grew in numbers so great their power became irresistible, so large that they were able to reshape their democracy, to rewrite its rules and traditions, the denialist, their leader, grew too powerful to restrain.
It became easy, then, for the denialist to attack the courts that held him to constitutional rules and restraints, because the people no longer had faith in the judges and believed the rules were designed to empower the elites, not protect the people.
It became easy for the denialist to attack the press, to label them “enemies of the people,” because the press “lies,” according to the leader, and because the people either don’t believe the First Amendment protects the freedom of the press or care that it does.
And it becomes easy for the denialist to trample our nation’s history and traditions when the people believe Eisenhower fought the Civil War and believe our traditions are false.
“Ignorance is strength.”